20/30: Ten Questions With McKendy Fils-Aime

McKendy Fils-Aime

Contrary to growing belief, Mckendy and I are actually two different people. That said, I’d be lying if I didn’t pick up on the things we share in common after being around him for just a short amount of time. McKendy is perhaps who I would be if I happened to be more thoughtful, more interested in nuance. That said, the last time we were around each other, we talked more about hip-hop and shoes than poetry. Which is also a gift. I could talk for a long time about McKendy’s work. The way he puts a lens on being black in a space that is not. The way he uses images clearly, romantically, and accessibly. And, like so many of the other writers this month, how unafraid he is of putting unique work into any space. Even ones that don’t know they need what he has to give. But, ultimately, what McKendy does for me outside of all that is pretty simple. He gives me someone I can look to with a great deal of respect. Someone who works form in language in ways that I envy. But also, maybe more importantly, someone I can go to when I’m tired of talking about poems, and talk about release dates of shoes and albums. That’s incredibly valuable. I’ll never take that for granted.

 

I’m so interested in the NorthBeast poetry scene, especially as someone who is going to be diving right in, at least to some parts of it. It seems like there’s a deep sense of community, and a unique intersection of poets from all corners of Boston, Maine, New Hampshire, and so on. What does that kind of atmosphere do for a writer? Have you kind of become a sponge?

 

Its always fun watching someone new to the NorthBeast scene. For the first few months or so, they’re everywhere. I think that because there are so many  readings in New England, its hard not to spend the first six months in the scene being at a reading every night. It also doesn’t help that we’re a mostly welcoming community…or maybe it does? There’s so much quality poetry around its kind of hard not to want to absorb all of it.

Because there’s such a large condensation of poetry scenes in New England, there’s obviously going to be some creative crossover. I think something that keeps everyone here from sounding like carbon copies of each other is that we embrace our differences as much as our similarities. We’re all speaking the same language, but with different accents, letting the phrases that are unique to us bleed through. I also think that each scene celebrates different a aspect of poetry. I’d like to imagine that affects how people write too.

 

What I really like about your work, and what I feel the most connected to is your use of imagery. All of the images in your poems are well crafted, and they all serve a purpose within the work. I really connect to poems without a wasted image. In “Loa”, there are coffins carried in bellies. In “Dracula to Mina Harker”, the body shakes like a beggar’s hands. What importance do you place on imagery, and the clarity of it.

 

Being that the use of imagery is one of the stronger elements of my writing, I’d say it’s pretty important. I like to act out scenes things before I write them down. I like setting the mood of a piece with imagery. I’m trying to elicit very specific emotions from an audience so the picture I paint needs to be well constructed. A well crafted image can do so much for a poem. A lot of people don’t realize that. That being said, because there’s levels to this shit, I try not to forget to use the other tools as a writer as well. Good poems aren’t built on pretty images alone.

 

You’re Haitian-American. I’m wondering how that background informs your writing, or how you approach it. Do you feel connected to your heritage in a way that bleeds through the poems you write?

 

Sometimes, it really depends on the day of the week. I’m still very much trying to figure out what it means to be Haitian-American. Some days I explore that territory more than others. For the past few years, my motive for writing poems about Haiti has been to discover what my experiences on the island as a kid mean to me as an adult.

 

Regardless, when I write about being Haitian, even when the act feels more selfish than not, I try to honor my culture. It’s a part of me that I can’t deny.

As for as the actual writing goes, I may borrow a word here or there, if the piece calls for it, but overall I tend to use the techniques that I always do.

 

 

A piece of yours that really kicked in the door and shook me out of bed recently was a piece you were kind enough to send me after I asked (“For Those Who Have Whistled Vivaldi”). I’m really curious about the way race plays into your work. I don’t know how much more delicately to put this. You’re a young black creative living in New England. That piece really did a lot to talk about code switching, or finding yourself in spaces where you are very obviously an “other”. Talk, if you could, about the focus you place on making sure you present race in an accessible way in your poems?

 

New Hampshire is a very white state. There’s no getting around that. Because I spent a good chunk of my formative years there, being one of a few, in a sea of sameness, I rolled with some not okay shit. I think originally being from New York, a very cultured city, in some ways, didn’t really prepare me for the swarm of awkward white kids still trying to figure out what’s okay and not okay to say.

I think all of these experiences, catalyzed by the Jonathan Ferrell and Renisha McBride murders, woke me up to the fact that no personal & academic achievement or positive disposition will change the fact that I’m perceived as a threat first, in this country. I also became aware of the moments where I had modified my behavior to change people’s perception of me. I concluded that I shouldn’t have to change my behavior to make anyone feel safe, especially if I’m not doing anything threatening in the first place.

 

I remember in his interview with you, Omar Holmon mentioned that he initially didn’t want to be seen as a “black poet writing black poems.” I used to have similar feelings. For the longest time, I felt like writing poems about race was doing some sort of disservice to me as a writer. That all clearly changed, however.

 

One day in late 2009, at a national poetry event, a man approached my friend and I outside of a hotel and asked for our phones. When we said no, he started cursing and threatening us. We decided to walk away and as we did, he called me a nigger, repeatedly. At that point, it was the first time I had experienced something that deliberately hateful since high school. I realized that not speaking about race in my poems was the true disservice; that I shouldn’t ignore a part of me that a lot of people don’t. I figured since I’ll always be black first to the world, I might as well write about it.

 

Slam Free or Die is my shit. Period. I really enjoyed not only the time I spent out there this winter, but of course the semifinal bout at NPS 2013 where we shared a stage was a true highlight of my time in poetry last year. What makes that space such a good/necessary one? How do you/will you continue to contribute to it?

 

Slam Free or Die is the reason why I kept writing poetry, period. I’ve met some of my best friends because of that reading. I’ve also learned many life lessons because of my time at SFOD. Its warm and welcoming environment is what’s kept me around for so long. Slam Free or Die is kind of like the Cheers of NorthBeast. When you walk into a room, everyone knows your name. We always show support to newcomers and regulars alike, when they’re on the mic.

I owe SFOD a lot. As a result, I’ve promised to do my part, for as long as I can, to keep that wonderful reading, wonderful. Currently I book featured performers for SFOD, do occasional hosting, and run an affiliated writing workshop. I also can be seen trying to contain myself when an excellent feature comes through and bodies their set. Excellent Slam Free or Die feature, by the way.

Speaking of slam, you’ve been playing the game for a lot of years now, considering how young you still are. You’ve been doing it for longer than I have, and really seem to have had the benefit of being around some outstanding artists in the process. What have you learned/taken away from your time on that wild ride? What is the best team experience you’ve had?

 

I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from some of the best poets in the country. I guess one thing that I’ve taken away is to cherish the learning experiences that you have. Because of the nature of slam, I never see any of my achievements or opportunities as commonplace. Every good thing that comes my way because of slam is a blessing.

 

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had mostly completely positive team experiences, during my time in slam. I can’t think of a year where a team was so horrible that I wanted to quit. The most rewarding team experiences that I’ve had were with the 2012 Boston Poetry Slam team & the 2013 Slam Free or Die team. I had the opportunity to work with some hungry, talented, loving poets. Our practices were always productive. It was really great being in that kind of environment for a summer. I felt like I really became friends with those guys.

 

So, here’s the thing. My bookcase, as it stands, is old. And weary. It leans under the weight of the poetry books I own. And yet, it still desires more. In short, I need a full length book of your poems. What are the plans on that front?

 

I’ve been working on a manuscript for a couple of years now. Right now, it’s a combination of my better chapbooks. While I like most of the poems in the manuscript, I can’t say that I stand behind them all. I need to take some stuff out, which means I’m going to have to replace those poems, which means I might have to write new poems, which means it won’t be out for a while. Once the writing is done, I’ll get the wheels rolling on a release.

 

Alright, so let us move forward by addressing the elephant in the room. We are not the same person. I can almost promise this, and yet there are similarities that we both have probably shared for some time, that have gone undetected until this point. For whatever reason. So since we’re both sneakerheads, something that I haven’t found too frequently in the poetry community, I’ve got to ask a hard hitting shoe question. You can select from every available color option, but you can only wear one MODEL of retro Jordans from here on out. Which model would you go with?

 

You know, what’s funny? Before I go out, I often look in the mirror and think “Hanif, what pair of kicks do you want to wear today?” And then I go listen to my favorite Pogues album. All jokes aside, this is probably blasphemous, but I’m not really a big Jordans guy. I think they’re the high heels of sneakers. I mean, they look cool and all, but they’re a bit painful to wear. I’m a big fan of a lot of the deadstock Nike SB Dunks. I’ve been looking for De La Souls as well as the Tiffanys, the Red Lobsters, & the green Taxi Cabs. The first SBs I ever bought were MF Doom Dunks. I wear them for features and big slams sometimes. I’ve got a small sneaker collection, but most of the time I rotate between 3 or 4 pairs. So far this year I’ve found myself wearing my red Nike Dunk lows, my white 2013 Nike Flights, my black Skytop 3s, and my purple New Balance 574s.

 

But to answer your question, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Jordan 3s, despite the fact that the Toro Bravo 4s are actually my favorite Jordans. But yeah, I’d go with the 3s. They’re streamlined, adaptable to almost any occasion, and are supported by good colorways.

 

Back to poems, you’re an avid reader. I asked Oz a similar question, but how do you find yourself reading? Do you have any advice on gaining a healthy relationship with reading as a person who also writes?

 

I don’t really have any advice for readers who also write, except that you need to read to write. Whenever I read a collection, one of my goals is to understand the messages the writer is conveying. Another is to figure out what techniques were used to convey those messages. The most respected people in our genre are respected for a reason. They are doing things with craft, in a way that most of us aren’t hip to. With every collection I consume, I take it upon myself to figure out what those things are. There are reasons why you like or dislike a writer. I think it’s important to find out what those reasons are and use them to improve your skills. For me, the name of the game is to learn something from every poem I read.

 

 Finally, in some form or another, I’ve asked this of nearly everyone. What excites you about poems right now? Who is writing work that reminds you of what is possible?

 

I think one of the most exciting things about poetry right now is how blurry the line between “page” and “stage” poetry has become. I mean you’ve got “slam poets” being published in some of the most prestigious literary magazines in the country. You’ve got National Poetry Slam champions getting accepted into residencies and winning writing grants for thousands of dollars. I know that none of this is new, but what makes me so stoked is watching it become more common.

Something else that I’m interested in is how performance poetry has gone viral. Thanks to Youtube channels like Button Poetry, we have a hub of high quality performance poems that are watched by millions of people. Combine that with the several websites that support those poems and you’ve got the recipe for something. I don’t know what that thing is, but all of this commercialization has got to lead somewhere. Slam is more mainstream than it’s ever been and I’m interested in seeing how that affects the genre.

 

As you stated earlier, I’m a pretty avid reader. There are so many poets out right now that are really pushing me to improve my writing. People like Ocean Vuong, Jamaal May, Danez Smith, Saeed Jones, Sam Sax, Emma Torzs, Megan Falley, Eliza Griswold, Casey Rocheteau, Franny Choi, Hieu Nguyen, and Matt Rasmussen never cease to amaze me. There are also plenty of local cats who are starting to make a name for themselves. I’m excited to watch the evolution of artists like Tim Hopkins, Kayla Wheeler, William James, Lauren Fremont, Raven McGill, Chris Clauss, Emily Eastman, Sam Rush, Brandon Amico, Dillon Welch, Janae Johnson, Princess Chan, Allison Truj, Kieran Collier, etc. Basically, there are a lot of folks who are really good at poems right now and that scares me. It also keeps me on my toes.

 

McKendy, thank you. I look forward to moving and building on this friendship.

 

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MCKENDY FILS-AIME is a six-time competitor at the National Poetry Slam, representing Manchester’s Slam Free or Die (2008, 2010, 2013), Worcester Poets’ Asylum (2009), and Boston Poetry Slam (20112012), McKendy Fils-Aime  is a two-time NorthBEAST Regional Slam individual finalist, ranking third in 2011. In January of 2011, he toured the country as part of a poetry quartet called No More Ribcage. Some of his work can be found in literary journals such as AmoskeagRadiusSmashcake, and Borderline. Currently, he has three self-published books and is working on a manuscript. When not reading his own poetry or attending open mics, Mckendy runs writing and performance workshops around New England.

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